National Security & Defense

ISIS in the Homeland

Thousands of Islamist Syrian rebels can travel freely to the U.S.

For a 500-mile stretch of territory that winds, more or less, along the Euphrates from Iraq to Syria, a regime of masked, sociopathic murderers reign in terror under the black flag of jihad.

This territory is not represented on any map of nation-states – a concept that little reflects realities in Iraq and Syria.  It is land claimed by the disciples of terrorist Abu Al Zarqawi. On June 10, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seized the city of Mosul in the Nineveh Province, capturing “arms and ammunition from the fleeing security forces” — arms and ammunition supplied by the American government, which will now be used to impose terror on defenseless civilians. The offensive coincides with a successful campaign by ISIS in eastern Syria. Perhaps there will be new detention centers of torture and murder; perhaps there will be more tweets proudly displaying crucifixions.

Like Zarqawi and bin Laden, these terrorists will not be satisfied to reign in the Hell of their own making in the Middle East, or with the toppling of insufficiently Islamic regimes, or even with winning the Sunni-Shia civil war that now rages. Their ultimate target will be the United States. They are coming this way. Perhaps as many as a dozen are already here – or, to be more precise, already back.

As Eli Lake recently reported in the Daily Beast, thousands of foreigners have gone to Syria to take up arms against the regime of Bashar Assad, serving with various rebel factions, most of which fall somewhere on the Islamist spectrum.

Thousands of these fighters are citizens of Western countries that have visa waivers for entry into the United States – in other words, they can travel here without any hassle at all. An intelligence source conveyed to Lake concerns that the NSA could not “track thousands of bad guys,” adding that “on the human-intelligence front, this is even more difficult.” These veterans of al-Qaeda and its affiliates constitute a fundamentally different threat than that which America faced in 2001: They are Western (at least in nationality); they are seasoned combat veterans; they are known, but perhaps too numerous to track.

After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, the fatigue of the American people is palpable, which has prompted many to welcome President Obama’s winding down of the global War on Terror. Despite the president’s repeated claims on the campaign trail two years ago, the evidence suggests that al-Qaeda is not “on the path to defeat” or “on the run.” It is, rather, “morphing” and “franchising,” according to the director of national intelligence, James Clapper.

Yet in Syria, America’s commitment, however anemic, is to the overthrow of Assad, a contemptible and ruthless secular dictator but one whose regime is fighting al-Qaeda and its affiliates among the rebels. This paradox is apparently lost on those most keen on his overthrow. Competing objectives in Syria have caused America to lose focus on the principal enemy and principal threat: al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

If these Islamist veterans of the Syrian conflict succeed in pulling off a terrorist attack against the United States, the problem with  America’s policy in Syria will come into focus immediately. One can well imagine the hearings on Capitol Hill: “We knew these people were coming. Why was more not done to stop them? Why wasn’t the intelligence community given the resources it needed to track these terrorists? Why were we sending arms to overthrow the dictator who was trying to kill these terrorists who later killed Americans?” The foreign-policy priorities of the present will instantly be regarded as an unworthy distraction and forgotten. It is, of course, easy enough to ask these questions retrospectively; it is another thing altogether to ask them in advance — which prompts one to take notice when someone on the Hill does.

The same day that ISIS seized Mosul – and with it, per the Wall Street Journal, “military installations where U.S.-supplied fighter airplanes, helicopters and other heavy weaponry are based” — Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R., Neb.) proposed an amendment to the defense appropriations bill to stop the delivery of U.S. weapons to Syria’s rebels. Fortenberry astutely noted:

The rebel movement is a battleground of shifting alliances and bloody conflicts between groups that include multinational terrorist organizations. Some of the most violent and successful rebel militias are linked to al-Qaeda. Sending our weapons into Syria’s chaotic warzone could help these extremists – jihadists who would be only too eager to seize American weaponry.

Some Syrian rebels already have already been given TOW anti-tank missiles by the U.S. and are requesting anti-aircraft missiles. As Fortenberry noted, “The potential benefits do not outweigh the severe risks. . . . Syrians do not deserve to live under Assad’s tyranny. But arming the rebels could make a bad situation worse, further destabilizing the region and causing greater humanitarian catastrophe.”

Idealism has often been an impediment to American foreign policy. Unable or unwilling to distinguish between mere Machiavellian evil (Assad) and globally ambitious sociopaths (ISIS), America may have left itself vulnerable. As Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Syria (and Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon) noted last year, there is a “sense of surreality” to America’s policy in Syria. There, the Islamist enemy is imprisoning, torturing, and publicly executing civilians. America must, Crocker noted, come to terms with the notion “that the alternative [to the Assad regime] is a major Arab country in the hands of al-Qaeda.” Al-Qaeda’s affiliates already rule substantial portions of Syria and Iraq; worse, its soldiers may already be in America, plotting a terrorist attack. If they are not, they will be.

More worrisome than tracking the small arms or TOW missiles in Syria are the ISIS and al-Qaeda soldiers who are now in America and countries with visa waivers. We can expect that a scramble, very much out of the public eye, is now underway to track these hundreds – or perhaps thousands – who are plotting an attack. Let us hope those efforts are successful.

— Andrew G. Doran served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State. 

Andrew Doran served on the State Department’s policy planning staff from 2018 to 2021. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Philos Project.


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